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A saying goes: “home is where the heart is.” In all cultures and throughout history, human beings have sought a home of their own, regardless of available resources and hardships. Researchers have found one of the oldest vestiges dating back to the Neolithic period in a Turkish city of 9,000 years old. The evolutionary process has turned us into skilled builders, especially of houses and communities ingeniously adapted to the rigors of the environment, which has gradually modified our customs, habitat, and relationship with nature. From a psychological perspective, a home remains one of the favorite places for gathering, refuge, and, at times, a sanctuary to escape the swings of a world in constant turmoil.
What is a home?
We all sense that a home is much more than a house with walls and a roof; its evocation can take us to our most profound memories and feelings. Sometimes, the idea of home is treasured and longed for as an anchor of our existence. Could we assume that it is a positive and universal conceptualization? Not necessarily, as it acquires other connotations depending on the socio-spatial context and the experience of its dwellers, especially when there is a growing number of cosmopolitan citizens with multiple identities. A home can also represent that sphere where certain habits can generate harmful behaviors or events. Beyond these relevant distinctions, the conformation of a home is at best linked to a dwelling that is adapted, inhabited, and decorated according to the values, beliefs, and environment of each group in society.
For many, home is or was a loving, self-discovery setting conducive to growing up. Most people will have more than one in their lifetime. The good news is that if the original one was unhappy, there is an opportunity to create a better one. The opposite is also true. Some people have mixed feelings when reminiscing about it because it is tied to painful situations that are difficult to overcome. For a growing number of older adults, it means the beginning of their decomposition since they will have to live in households, with severe consequences for their health and well-being. Even when it is a pleasant place, it becomes an arena of political dimensions where points of view are firmly discussed, rights and privileges are negotiated, concessions are made, and even empowerment is sought through self-assertion. If you are not convinced, imagine a house with teenagers.
As a dream, a home has symbolic meanings incorporated into its imaginary design, influenced by desires and illusions we develop throughout life. In the real world, its shape, location, surroundings, and possessions that furnish or decorate it become key pieces that form a part of our uniqueness. The complex interactions of these physical and figurative elements define a home, and as we define it, it also redefine us. Therefore, the construction of homogeneous housing developments that lack progressive housing and quality public spaces or, when located far away from the city’s centers, is problematic because it restricts access to employment and essential services. This limited vision of urban development discourages the formation of households and fosters territorial fragmentation.
The importance of decent housing and living environment
In recent decades, the notion of home has gained new nuances, not only when we encounter people who are homeless but also because of the constant increase of immigrants, refugees, asylum seekers, or victims of natural disasters, especially in Latin America and the Caribbean. Given a home’s significance and emotional associations, those who have lost it or never had one face severe psychological challenges. Lacking a place to live is devastating. In another dimension, it is also harmful to live in a house with inadequate physical conditions, without essential services, overcrowded, and with insecurity for its members and neighbors; in other words, living in an “unsuitable” house and environment. Although these challenges exist globally, they are of particular concern in our region, as evidenced in the Housing Forum 2022 organized by the IDB, due to the lack of adequate access to housing solutions, the change in family structures, the persistence of inequality and the impacts of socio-environmental vulnerability, especially after COVID-19.
Why is it so important that we all have decent housing and habitat access? Because a house and its surroundings have the potential to become a home and strengthen the sense of belonging to a community; in other words, it is a transforming point of reference in the memory, feelings, and imagination of its dwellers. It allows us to create a life narrative, giving meaning to our existence in time and place. It is, therefore, unacceptable to think of an integral, inclusive, and sustainable urban and human development where many do not have access to a house, others do not have decent housing, and a growing minority lacks or lost their homes. Going back to quotes, I will keep the following: “A home is like a suit; the best ones are the tailor-made ones.”
The author is grateful for the valuable input from Paloma Silva, lead specialist and housing coordinator at CSD/HUD.
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